Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Called: Sister Dina I. Oddis, Er. Dio.

Sister Dina I. Oddis, Er. Dio.
Hometown: Haddonfield, N.J.
Education: Bryn Mawr College; St. Cecilia Conservatory in Rome; Temple University’s Fox School of Business; Temple Law School.
 Assignment: Hermit at the Holy Mother of God Hermitage in Middletown, Pa.

Tell me a bit about your childhood.

I was born on the Atlantic Ocean, latitude 43°37” north, longitude 56°44” west. It’s the north Atlantic. I have my birth certificate, which was written and signed by the captain of the ship on which I was born, the M/S Italia. I was born in international waters, three days out of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The ship was Italian, but it was flying the Panamanian flag, so when we reached Halifax, the ship’s captain and my father went to the Panamanian consulate and registered my birth.

The Panamanian consulate in Halifax burned down about 65 years ago; the certificate that I have is the only piece of paper in the entire world that gives testimony to the fact that I was born.

I was born two months premature. Mom and Dad weren’t figuring on that. Mom wanted me to be born in the United States. They were coming back from Italy, where they had lived for two years after they were married. They went back to my father’s hometown in Italy. I’m first-generation Italian from my father and second-generation from my mother.

I am the only child of the family. There were two other pregnancies; one before me and one after, but it was not God’s will that they go full term.

When my mother went into labor on the ship, the doctor said, “Madam, we just don’t have the equipment for you to give birth here. What I suggest you do is to wait until we arrive in Halifax in three days. Then, we’ll take you to the hospital and you will have your baby there.” (laughing) Mom looked at the doctor and said, “Doctor, if the baby will wait, so will I!”

A first-class passenger sent down some diapers for me, and they wrapped me in cotton cloth and put gauze on the top of my head to keep me warm. This was in January, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, during a Gale Force 7.

My mom’s pregnancy was very difficult. If she laid down 20 times a day and got up 20 times a day, she got sick 20 times a day. By the time she got to her third month of pregnancy, the doctor said, “This is such a difficult pregnancy for you, why don’t you just terminate?” Mom and Dad talked, and because it was so difficult for her to get pregnant, she wanted to tough it out. That was my mom – a fighting spirit!

Tell me more about your mother, and her influence in your life.

She never surrendered to anything. She had such an incredibly strong will, she fought for me to live. She fought tooth and nail that I would live.

The last six weeks of her life, when she was in a nursing home, she had this chant, “Won’t die, won’t die, won’t die.” I’m thinking, “She’s Catholic, she doesn’t want to die. How can I get her over this hump?” By then, she wasn’t focusing on me. As soon as she had passed, I realized she was saying, “Want die.” She wanted to die. She willed herself to die for me, because she knew that my being a hermit would never happen if she was alive and I had to take care of her. She knew how much I wanted this. So I’ve had two people die for me – my Lord and my mom. That’s why this is so important to me.

I remember the day I made application to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for candidacy as a hermit. My initial meeting with the then-vicar was a very positive one. I was on the moon! Then I got his letter: “After prayerful consideration….” You know whenever a letter starts out like that, it’s not going to be good. “Your first priority is to take care of your mother.” Mom saw that I was upset and she said, “What’s the matter?” I said, “Msgr. wrote and he’s not accepting my candidacy because you have to be my priority.” She got all huffed up and said, “He can’t do that. Do you want me to go down to the Archdiocese and punch his lights out?” I said, “No Mom, please don’t do that! I don’t think it would change his mind.”

But that was Mom. She never held back anything. Hers was truly unconditional love. She was fiercely loyal to the family. She would do anything and everything she could to help anyone in the family. When it came down to her daughter, she gave the last thing she had – her life. She willed herself to die. I pray that I have a tenth of her fighting spirit, because we certainly need it.

My mom converted to Catholicism in 1994 and I converted in 1995. Before that, we were Quakers – early exposure to the contemplative life! At four years old, I knew God existed.

How is it that your Italian family was Quaker?

During the Second World War, in Italy, the Fascists were aligned with the Catholic Church. You became Communist, not because you believed in the Communist ideal, but because the Communists were directly opposed to the Fascists, who were aligned with the Church.

My father was brought up Catholic and my mother’s father was brought up Catholic. But when the war came, it changed everything in Italy for them. When Mom and Dad came here, they became convinced Quakers, which is the Quaker term for “converted.” I was a birthright Quaker.

Where did you grow up?

Haddonfield, N.J. We lived for a time in Germantown, in Philadelphia, with my grandmother. Dad was a Latin teacher, and he got a position teaching Latin at the high school. It did not make me a very popular girl, believe me. But I loved Latin. I started in eighth grade, I went through high school with it, and took it in college. It’s an amazing language.

I was always bullied and picked on because I didn’t look like anybody else – I have dark hair, dark eyes and olive skin. It hardened my heart in a way that was not good, and I started to act out and do things that were just awful.

When did you start to learn about the Church?

I went to Bryn Mawr College. When I was there, it was one of the full-fledged Seven Sisters colleges. Then I did a year at the Conservatory in Rome, for piano. You have to not only be good technically, but you have to have marketing awareness and astuteness, and I wasn’t good with the marketing. After a year, I didn’t think it was the right thing.

By that time, Dad had retired and my parents bought a house on the Island of Elba, and I was in Rome. I found myself gravitating toward a Catholic church with a statue of Our Lady, but I didn’t know anything about her. I went into the church and whispered to somebody, “Can you tell me where the statue of Our Lady is?” I would sit in front of her for half an hour, and I would always feel better. I didn’t know why. I knew she was important, but I didn’t have the whole story about her.

I was in Rome when they opened the Holy Door in 1975, and I was in the procession that processed through the door right after it was opened. I got goosebumps. I was Protestant, and had no clue about the Catholic Church. But I got goosebumps walking through that Holy Door.

I went to Switzerland for a while and would look for a Catholic church, and where the statues of Our Lady were.

Things just didn’t come together for me. I was a year at one place, then a got a job in the financial arena. I had gotten an MBA in finance and also a CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst). This was at a time when financial professionals were not considered “professional.” The CFA program was extraordinarily important because it was a three-year self-study program put together by the CFA Institute. If you had a CFA, it showed your commitment to the profession, that you had acquired an elevated knowledge of the field, and that you were thoroughly equipped to do the job. I got mine in the late 80s.

I was not happy, and I think that’s maybe why I worked a lot. I kept pushing myself to earn a lot of money and get the fancy clothes – all the material trappings of the world. I wound up converting in 1995. I was back from Europe and in Philadelphia when I converted. I had done my junior year of college in Florence. After graduating, I spent six years in Rome. When I came back to the United States, I got into the financial arena.

What is your conversion story?

On Good Friday, at 2:30 in the afternoon, April 14, 1995, I was in Old St. Joseph’s Church in Philadelphia, waiting for Agony to start at 3 pm. It was freezing cold and raining outside. I was cold and miserable. I felt like the whole world was falling apart around me. I was crying, and mascara was running down my cheeks. I was looking at this incredible oil painting of the Crucifixion behind the altar, and I said, “I drove those nails in. I’m the one who helped crucify Him.” Now I was really crying and in great distress. Next thing I know, I feel this little pressure on my left shoulder, like a feather had just landed. Then I heard a voice: “Just say yes.” I thought, “What is this ‘Just say yes’ business?” Again, “Just say yes.” I said, “I don’t know who you are, but leave me alone, because I’m miserable and I don’t know what you’re trying to do.” Again, I heard, “Just say yes.” The third time is the charm. “I don’t know who is talking to me, and I don’t know what I’m being asked, but yes.”

On the second floor, there was a row of stained-glass windows. Remember, it was a cloudy, rainy, miserable day. But this ray of sunshine came through the window. It hit a stained-glass window of a chalice above the oil painting of the Crucifixion. It illuminated the window of the Saving Cup, and that ray of sunshine reflected down onto me. All of a sudden, I’m warm, I’m calm. I feel safe and, dare I say it, saved. His voice was so compelling that I thought, “I don’t know who you are or what you’re asking, but I’m going to say yes anyway.”

When did you enter the Church, and when did you give thought to becoming a religious?

I was received into the Church at the Easter Vigil, April 15, 1995, and I immediately knew that I wanted to give my life to God, but there were a couple of things in the way. My dad had passed in 1988 and I was the only child, so I had to take care of Mom. I had to wait for two years before I could look at monasteries, because I knew I wanted to be in an enclosed environment. I knew I had to be a contemplative. I always recharged myself when I was not around people, and I was always at my best when I was alone, without other people. It’s just something that one knows, like how one knows when one is in love. It’s a love story. I wouldn’t have been able to label it like that at that time, because I wasn’t fully aware.

What was your path toward religious life?

I was still living in the world while looking for a monastery. I knew I couldn’t go back to the investment world, because that would not have given me enough space to explore this new part of my being that wanted to be born. I got a job in a different field for five years while I was exploring monasteries, and came to the realization that it just wasn’t the right time. How was I going to take care of Mom? So I put the idea away, and I applied to law school instead.

There was someone very influential in my life at that time, the Honorable Annette M. Rizzo, who is a retired judge now. I so admired her in the courtroom, and I saw her helping people. That’s what I wanted to do, so I thought that was the best vehicle, and I went to Temple Law School in Philadelphia, part-time in the evening. I had a fabulous experience. During the day, I worked s law clerk for the Organized Crime Strike Force of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. I worked with the best of the best, and they were amazing people to work with. It was fun! I was an asset forfeiture specialist. The RICO Statutes, which are the organized crime statutes of the U.S. Code of Law, provide that any kind of asset procured with funds that have been obtained criminally can be seized once the person has been convicted. Those assets can then be converted to cash, and restitution can be paid to the victims. I really enjoyed that work.

After passing the bar, I was appointed Deputy Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with the Bureau of Consumer Protection, so I was protecting citizens from scammers and other unscrupulous people. Once again, it was about helping people. I went into law because I wanted to help people. And I still do. But now, instead of enforcing man’s law of justice, I try to enforce God’s law of mercy. In any judicial system, justice is the goal. But there’s always one person who is never going to get justice, and that is the convicted criminal. There is no mercy for them, either. But God’s justice, His mercy, is different. It is complete.

I kept growing further away from the material world. While I was Deputy Attorney General, I had a framed piece of artwork on my desk of the head of our Lord, recently expired on the Cross. On day, while I was putting some files away, I knocked it to the floor, and the glass shattered. Everything stopped. I stood still. I stopped breathing. Then a voice came: “Now is the time.”

Did you enter a monastery at that point?

I started looking for monasteries, and I found a small one in northeastern Connecticut, which is no longer in existence. My Mom was heartbroken, and I didn’t realize the depths of her despair until after she passed. I entered the monastery, but things deteriorated rather rapidly there. I had no time to pray by myself. The mother superior was very demanding, and wanted me to be her alter ego. It was Benedictine.  In Benedictine spirituality, the Conversion of Manners includes poverty and chastity. There is also a vow of stability to your chosen house; the house you choose is where you stay. I made my simple profession after a very brief period of time, and I left after almost three years. I guess it was “right church, wrong pew.” The day that I tried on the habit for my fitting, I knew it was the wrong thing for me. I tried to tell the mother superior, and she blasted me. I was so miserable the day of my simple profession, when I should have been overjoyed. It was September 14, 2009, the Feast of the Exultation of the Cross. I left on April 24, 2010.

What did you do after you left the monastery?

My mom was still alive, and she was completely overjoyed that I was coming home. She had Alzheimer’s, and the shock of me leaving was so great for her that she would often tell me she didn’t remember anything that happened when I was away.

The shock and the hurt of leaving the monastery was so great for me that I didn’t go to Mass for three years. I had been going to daily Mass at St. John the Evangelist in Philadelphia, and my former pastor asked if I wanted to talk because he had heard about what happened.

By then, a friend had alerted me to the possibility of being a hermit. The thing that attracted me was, I could be a hermit and still take care of Mom. It seemed like a superficial reason, but it was real because Mom was a concern. So I talked to my former pastor, who is still my spiritual director after all these years.

How did you come here from Philadelphia?

There were two hermits in Coatesville and a third who had applied and was accepted. I got a phone call that the Archbishop was not consecrating hermits at the time. I had spent five years reading and studying, undergoing formation direction and spiritual direction, and moving to a house in Coatesville. And then my mom got sick. It was June of 2017. By September 2 of that year, she was gone.

I decided to leave the archdiocese, because I knew I couldn’t be a vowed hermit there. I had been in touch with a hermit sister in the Diocese of Harrisburg, Sister Mary Catherine Rose Giacobbe. There are four hermits in this Diocese. She stepped into my mom’s place. We talked for over an hour, and it was just like talking to Mom. I said, “I have to come to Harrisburg, because I can’t be consecrated in the archdiocese.” She told me to move here and get settled, and to keep her apprised.

I didn’t know anything about Harrisburg. I found a real estate agent and we started looking for suitable housing on December 14, 2017. One day she said, “So far I’ve shown you three different areas of Harrisburg. Which one did you like the best?” And I said, “They were three different areas? They all looked alike to me!”

We would look at places on Saturdays, and I would look online too. On January 10, at 4:00 in the afternoon, I was on Zillow and found a new listing, “for sale by owner.” I emailed my agent and asked her to slip this one in on the schedule. It had a garage, which is important for my Fiat. On Saturday, January 13 at 1:00, we came here. I looked at the house and it was blue – the color of Our Lady. It looked completely different inside than it does now. It was dark and difficult to see. There was furniture all over the place, with a 56-inch television in the living room corner. I was here for only five minutes, and I knew it was the one. I pulled the agent into what is now my chapel and I said, “We have to put an offer in now, because they’re having an open house on Monday. This is where I’m supposed to be.” The offer was accepted on Monday, January 15, the Feast of St. Paul of Thebes, the first hermit. I closed on February 5.

It took 19 days to close, versus two and half years of looking in Coatesville. It took Bishop Gainer 59 minutes to accept me for consecration after five years of me trying in Philadelphia. So when someone asks, “How did you choose Middletown?”, I say I didn’t; Our Lady did. I will be here until I’m told otherwise.

What does it mean to be a hermit?

The way we pray, the way we devote our lives to prayer is needed. Even though people may not realize it, and may not understand the effect that prayer is having, it is the most effective thing that I could possibly do with my life. That puts me over the moon. It means that what I am doing counts for something. In God’s scheme, it counts for something.

Hermits are watchful. We are here to watch, to see and to observe. After a watchman observes, what does he do? He reports back. To whom does he report back? To his commander in chief. So I go back to God in prayer, and say, “This is what I have seen. This is what I have heard. We need help. Please, help us.” He knows it, but He needs me to know that I know He knows. After that exchange has happened, I can pray about these things. And then He’ll send me out again.

It’s an unusual thing. It’s not found very frequently in the active orders, in fact, hardly ever. But we’ve had numerous instances of religious – both men and women – who have been in monasteries and in orders, and have gone off to be hermits within their order. Thomas Merton, for example. A lot of monasteries have accommodations for a hermitage on their grounds to provide for that.

I’m Benedictine. I’ve been Benedictine ever since I went to a nursery school at age four run by the Benedictine nuns. The eremitic vocation is one that takes self-discipline and self-preservation, and that doesn’t come easy to an 18- or 20 year-old. That’s why this vocation is really an older age vocation. We are required to be financially independent. We enjoy and treasure our Mother Church’s blessing. Bishop Gainer gave me a solemn blessing at my consecration, and that means the world to me. But we do not get any financial assistance from the Diocese.

Our level of financial independence does not come easily to a young person, who may still need to pay off a mortgage, so being a hermit tends to be a later-in-life vocation. It also takes a certain level of maturity. In that respect, this vocation is very different.

People don’t set out to be hermits. I didn’t even know that the vocation existed. I had left the monastery, and it absolutely broke my heart. I had heard what Mother Superior said, and I firmly believed, “God doesn’t want you; you have no vocation.” I didn’t know the eremitical life existed and a friend told me about it. All of a sudden, this proverbial light bulb went on. It was an ah-ha moment with God and I said, “That’s what I’m supposed to do.” Only three months passed from the time I heard about it until I formulated my plan for life and was actually living the life.

There are resources out there available for this discernment process. The foremost guide actually came out of Wisconsin when Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke headed the Diocese of La Crosse. Under his aegis, Marlene Weisenbeck wrote a guide to the eremitic life. Very informative, because it has so many resources on how to approach the vocation, and how the diocese should approach someone who wants to be a hermit.

Going back to the nature of the vocation, the discernment process is very difficult, because a lot of dioceses don’t know what it means to be a hermit and how it contributes to the diocese and to the Church in general. But thanks to the Holy Spirit, someone who wants to be a hermit will always find a way to be formed, get the information and start the discernment process under the guidance of other hermits. That’s the age-old tradition. The younger hermits, in the days when the eremitic movement started in the late 200s, would go live with an older hermit and that’s how they learned.

What is the history of the vocation?         

At the time that the eremitic movement started in the late 200s, Christianity had become mainstream. It was accepted and embraced by the society of the Roman Empire, and the people who were Christian had become very complacent. There were a lot of people who said they wanted to go back to the old values of the time of the Apostles. I have to say, tongue-in-cheek, that not all the first hermits were upstanding citizens. We had our fair share of those who were dodging the draft from the Roman military. We also had our fair share of people who had done things that were not quite lawful, including some who were robbers.

Wave number two happened in the 1100s. You had the Dark Ages, absolute corruption of the Benedictine Order, and the split of the Cistercians. The Benedictine Order was in complete disarray, the Church itself was in complete disarray, and you had hermits who were going back to the original values of Christianity.

The third wave is happening now. I won’t say it’s in direct response to the fact that  the Code of Canon Law was revised and promulgated in 1983, because we have our own Canon in the Code of Canon Law: “Besides institutes of consecrated life, the Church recognizes the eremitic or anchoritic life, by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and salvation of the world.” (Canon 603). That is our charism. That is our ministry. The praise of God and the salvation of the world. How do we do that? We do that through “a stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance.”

Section two of that Canon reads, “A hermit is recognized in the law as one dedicated to God in consecrated life if he or she publicly professes the three evangelical counsels – poverty, chastity and obedience – confirmed by vow or other sacred bond in the hands of the diocesan bishop, and observes his or her own plan of life under his direction.”

The charism of the vocation is very specifically spelled out in the Code of Canon Law. How that is implemented varies from hermit to hermit. We praise God, we pray for the salvation of the world, and we do it in stricter separation from the world in solitude and penance. That’s what makes up the vocation. But if you take a look at the moments in history where there eremitic vocation has flourished, it has been in response to and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who has understood that the world needed help and the best help was going to bring hermits together to flourish and to help save the Church and the world.

We are watchmen. We watch, we see, we observe. We take it back to God, and we pray for those very things we have seen.

What does “watching” mean? Is it when you go to Mass, or when you encounter someone?

It’s all of those levels, and more. Because we are so separated from the world, we can see more clearly. We can see down into the depths of the water. The parallel would be standing beside a pool of water. It’s clear, and I can see all the way down to the bottom. I can see countless stones on the bottom. If I step into the pool, I’m going to muddy the waters and not be able to see into the depths. In stricter separation from the world, I’m outside the pool, I’m not muddying the pool and I’m not taking part in it. That’s how we watch.

I can talk to you and we can have a conversation on the surface. You could tell me about things that have been troubling you. That’s the surface. Behind those words – because I don’t live in the world – I can hear what your soul is going through. That’s how we watch, and that’s what we pray for.

We are creatures of the senses, and I see physically. But being a hermit enables me to see spiritually, to see the soul.

It came to me one day, a thought given by God, if I am true to my vocation, I will see with the eyes of God. That is of inestimable value to the hermit, to the Church, to the community and to the world.

How important is the vocation of a hermit?

We see that it takes on a purpose and an importance which maybe are not readily apparent. What does a hermit do? I do everything that a monk or a nun does, but I do it by myself. A chance meeting on the street is not going to provide the opportunity for Theological discussion on the eremitic vocation, but it is critically important to the Church and to the world.

I remember one phrase from my vows, “Now, profess your determination to be a solitary within the Church for the rest of your life, to uphold the evangelical counsels you have here publicly professed, and to do so freely and for the rest of your life without any hindrance. Do you vow to do this?” “I do, with the grace of God.” That is the critical moment of one’s consecration.

We are solitary, but that doesn’t mean we are alone. We are alone from human company, but we do have human company – although the lockdowns have made it a little more difficult.

We are creatures of flesh, not totally of spirit. How the first hermits managed to do what they did, I think that’s absolutely amazing. Whatever we are doing, and however we are doing it, we are all trying to live as authentically as possible – not in the same way, because our society is different than the first hermits. We can’t live like the hermits in the 200s and 300s. We’re not in the middle of the desert around Thebes, the same place the first hermits congregated. St. Paul of Thebes was the first recognized hermit. St. Antony of the Desert was actually the second hermit. We can’t live like that. Apparently the first hermits slept maybe one hour a night. Well, me, not so much!

But we live authentically, with our whole heart, our whole mind, our whole strength, with everything that we have given to God. And some days are better than others, and that’s the truth of any vocation.

What is a typical day for you in this vocation?

Every hermit has a Plan of Life. A Plan of Life is what governs every aspect of a hermit’s life: prayer, what one does inside the hermitage, going outside of the hermitage, what one wears, sometimes even what one’s nutrition and diet will be. Most hermits are vegetarian.

The day starts very early. People will ask, “Why do you get up so early?” Well, because most sins of the world occur under cover of darkness. That’s when the Evil One is most active; that’s when we have to pray. I’m usually in chapel by 4:00 or 4:30. Morning prayer is anywhere from two and a half to three hours. That consists of the Divine Office, Lauds, and an hour of Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. Then, with the tabernacle still open, I pray the Rosary. The chapel is set up so that the Blessed Mother is diagonally opposite the tabernacle, so Son and Mother are looking at each other while I’m praying the Rosary. How amazing is that! Then I go to Mass. I hold  to the old traditional ways: I fast between 15 and 18 hours before Mass.

Then I have two hours of work, and that can be shopping for food. There is a very strict budget. The vow of poverty is very real. I actually impose poverty on myself in certain circumstances. I might have enough money to do a special thing, but I’ll choose not to do it for the reason of poverty.

After work, Lectio Divina, study, lunch, a Holy Hour of Adoration. I take a rest in the afternoon because, by then, I’ve been up for 12 hours. At 3:00, there is another Holy Hour. I say the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, then I have an hour break, for work or study. Vespers is at 5:00. Dinner and recreation follow, then Compline at 7:00 or 7:30.

The hermit’s life is not set in stone. We have to be flexible enough to say, “Today, this isn’t going to happen.” Sometimes in the afternoon, I get delayed outside, or shopping is difficult. I can’t beat myself up for that. The important thing is that our day goes the way God sends it to us. But it’s the constancy. He’s always there, and I’m always there. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life, but it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.

A couple times during the year, my body will just quit on me. Not long ago, I slept for 12 hours straight, slept right through Mass. I have a physical body and sometimes my body says, “I’m quitting!” It’s a good lesson in humility. God always wakes me up in time, and if He hasn’t awakened me, it means I needed the rest.

Sunday is a day off. And that is where I learned a lesson from St. Teresa of Calcutta. When she first started the Missionaries of Charity, she was going seven days a week, until she collapsed. She was told, “You need to take an hour for yourself every day, and you need to take Sunday off. Sunday is for the Lord.” On Sundays, I am freer. I don’t have to study or do Lectio. But the Lord is always here with me.

It doesn’t sound like a lot, but I also have to do everything in the house: keeping up with the laundry, cleaning, cooking. Prayer is a full-time job every day, and then I have to figure out everything else. I’m the only person here, it’s a full schedule.

What do you advise a woman who is feeling a pull toward the eremitical life?

If you’re really serious about this, the only way you can find out if you can actually be a hermit is to live the life. So for six months, live it. The first thing you need to do is take a leave from your work for six months. You also have to figure out how you’re going to make sure your financial resources are going to work. Ditch the fancy clothing, the jewelry, the perfume. Those things won’t be in your budget. You have to wear simpler clothing, and cover your hair. Live it as though you were already vowed. Don’t wait to live it when you are vowed.

It’s not just a question of being alone with the Lord. It’s not just about praying for three hours and then going on about your day. This is 24/7/365. It’s every day. I wear my habit all the time; I’m not a part-time hermit. This isn’t what I do for a job; this is my life.

How do people respond when they see your habit?

I was outside the local bank branch here in Middletown, and I met a parishioner. I had seen her at Mass that morning, but I didn’t know who she was. She said she was recently widowed, and I recognized that she needed to talk. This is what I mean by “watching” as a hermit. I’m hearing that she needed to talk about her husband and her life with him. I was listening to a soul who needed comfort. My soul was comforting her soul by being there.

As we were standing there, a gentleman came up, maybe 5’3,” very spry. He had a captain’s beard, spectacles and a Navy veteran cap. It was just a joy to see him. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Good morning, Sister!” I wondered, “Do I know this person? Have I met him before and forgotten his name?” I said, “Good morning, sir. How are you?” He looked and me and said, “You’re not my sister, but you’re everyone’s sister.”

That’s why I do this. That’s why I wear the habit. People see it and come up to me all the time because they want to talk. They ask me to say a prayer for them. Before COVID, they would ask me to give them a hug, and I would. They know what the habit means.

One lady stopped me at Giant and said, “It is so good to see a traditional habit again. I’m not even Catholic, I’m Lutheran, but I went to a Catholic school.” Wearing the habit isn’t for me; it’s a witness to Him. It’s also a sign to my brothers and sisters. If you have a car accident, you’re going to look for a police officer. If you’re injured in that accident, you’re hoping a health care worker comes along and you look for someone wearing a doctor’s white coat. The habit tells people that the person wearing it has been consecrated to God, and has their best interests at heart.

I love when people ask me questions, because it gives me an opportunity to explain, and to show them that people do still give themselves to God.

My wimple and bandeau are blue, for Our Lady. She is my personal patroness, and also the patroness of my hermitage Holy Mother of God Hermitage.

You have a unique story about a ring. Talk about that.

Seven or eight years ago, I was in my mom’s jewelry box to try to see what was valuable because we didn’t have enough money for the real estate taxes. Beautiful things deserve to be appreciated and used. We had some really beautiful gold pieces. I told Mom I had to get the gold together to sell. She said, “That’s OK, sweetheart. Do whatever you need to do.”

I found a ring, clearly a wedding ring, with three bands on it. It had been used, you could tell, because it was scratched up. But I had never seen it before in my life. I took it to Mom to ask her whose it was. She said she didn’t know. She couldn’t remember a thing about it. I was looking at it, and I heard a voice, “That’s my profession ring, and I’m going to be professed on Trinity Sunday.” I was professed on Trinity Sunday, 2018. And the ring fit perfectly.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

In my family tree, three brothers of one family married three sisters of another family, and the brother of the sisters married the sister of the brothers. The last couple remained in Italy. The three brothers and the three sisters came to the United States. The mother of the sisters, my maternal great-grandmother, came with them. She was 70 when she emigrated. We called her Granny, and she died six months before I was born. Every May, the Month of Mary, she had a series of prayers she would say. She was on her knees (with rice under her knees!) on a hardwood floor saying her prayers.

I have my great-grandmother’s Rosary. She was born in 1851. This Rosary belonged to her mother. I also have her wooden spoon that she made tomato sauce with. That’s where the Catholicism in my family comes from. How many years did it take for my mom to convert in 1995? How many years did it take for me? God waited, didn’t He?

I consider my entire life a miracle under God’s protection. I wasn’t supposed to have been born. I was born two months prematurely, which is often caused by a deficiency of vitamin E in the mother. That same deficiency weakens the eye tissue of the baby, and if you administer oxygen in the first 24 hours of life, the baby will be blind within four months. The fact that the ship didn’t have anything on board for a newborn was a Godsend. There are so many things – the doctor suggested aborting me – and here I am! I am alive, I can see, and all those other great things that come with being alive. I consider my entire life a miracle. It has been an amazing journey. And the initials of my name spell “God” in Italian (Dina Italia Oddis)!

I want people to see the beauty, the hardship and the heartache. I want them to see all of it in this vocation. It’s not an easy life, but it’s an extraordinary one.

One thing people have to realize about this life: there’s no buffer between me and the Evil One. I have to go head to toe with him by myself. There have been some knock-down fights that have left me clinging to the tabernacle. The Evil One plays for keeps. Thankfully, so does Our Lord. I have prayer, and I have Our Lady, St. Joseph, St. Michael, Our Lord and God the Father guarding this place. So if Satan wants to tangle, he can tangle with them. He absolutely needs to be fought.

As real as Our God is, so is Satan. He’s not a myth. Those of us who have dealt with him know that his best trick is getting people to believe he doesn’t exist. If you think he’s not here, look at the world and the state it’s in. He is real, and he’s gunning for anybody he can get. That’s the other part of being a “watchman” as a hermit, and why this vocation is critical.

A while ago, a friend asked me about the eremitic vocation. I explained what we do and why, and he kind of stood there, just thinking. He looked at me for a moment, looked away and said, “A friend of mine recently became Christian. You know, acknowledging Jesus as Lord and all that. He grumbled that his life hadn’t gotten any easier; in fact, it had gotten harder.” I laughed and said, “Well, yeah. The minute you said yes to Jesus, you enlisted in the war.” Then he looked at me again and said, “So, you’re in this foxhole with your buddies, and you’re pinned down by a machine gun in a bunker up ahead, and you’re the one who says: Stay here, guys. Stay safe. I got this one.’ And you go out there by yourself to take out the machine gun in the bunker.” That just bowled me over. I never thought of it like that, but he was right. That’s exactly what we do. We’re sort of the first line of defense. Some of us will make it, some of us won’t.  But in the end, what counts is that we fought, and we didn’t hold anything back.

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